Every once in a while I start to wonder if I will run out of material for this blog…then I have a ridiculous weekend like this one and realize that there is still so so so much more to talk about. Even though many of you have read more than 100 posts here, we are still just a few inches beneath the surface, and luckily for us, that is where a lot of the fun begins.
This weekend was May Day holiday here in China, essentially the communist version of Labor Day in the US, and my co-worker invited my wife and I to visit her husband’s hometown, Huaxi Cun. “Where is it?” I asked. “Oh, it’s very famous,” her husband said “It’s the first village of China. Many tourists like to visit there.”
As you know from reading my other posts, I like getting out of the city, and I rarely say no to free trips. So we joined them for the two-hour car ride to Huaxi Cun.
On the way we passed hundreds of other little villages along the freeway. Farmers were growing rice and assorted vegetables in the fields that surrounded their old, communist-era cement homes. Almost exactly how you would picture China.
As we got closer we started to see more and more billboards touting Huaxi Cun’s greatness, reading “华西村，中国第一村”, which translates into exactly what her husband said, “Huaxi village, the first village in China.” Only these signs had pictures with people like Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, and piles of other communist leaders that they were happy to name for us.
Through the pollution a giant building topped with a massive golden orb became visible, and her husband started to beam with pride. “That’s my village,” he said, he was so excited he could hardly speak English, “That building will be the 9th tallest in the world when it is finished.”
My wife and I were too dumbfounded to speak, and luckily my co-worker said what we were thinking, “I don’t think it’s good for them to build such a tall building, it wastes a lot of money.”
“It’s for tourism,” he said, “There is even room for the two helicopters on the top.” He pointed to the billboard that pictured their two helicopters.
We nodded as if a little village in China had a need for such an ambitious project. It was at this time I asked what it was his brother did in Huaxi Cun. My co-worker hesitated for a moment before saying, “He’s a village leader.”
“Oh, very good,” I said, which became my go-to phrase for a weekend where I didn’t know what to say most of the time. I said the same thing when her husband explained that the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, used to enjoy visiting here (to be honest, I had no idea who he was).
The main street of the village was lined with American-sized single-family homes, which the Chinese refer to as “Villas”. “Is this where your brother lives?” I asked trying to find out if these were just another example of government excess. To my surprise he explained that in Huaxi Cun, all of the farmers live in villas.
We arrived at our hotel, The Golden Tower, which was modeled after the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi’an and were starting to see how wonderful everything here really was. My friend’s brother met us in the hotel lobby where he had already checked us in (note: if you are friends with a gov’t official nobody needs to see your passport). From the top of the hotel we could see out over the village of mansions and started to wonder if they might be in need of a couple of foreign teachers.
The village leader explained that the farmers had become rich by working in factories, and now they are each entitled to a villa, a car, free health care, a generous pension, and good education for their children…It all sounded so wonderful.
The story continues tomorrow as we peek behind the facade, and things begin to get a little surreal.